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A Succession Saga Goes Silent

Sources Attribute Apparent Suspension of Campaign to N. Korean Leader's Improved Health

A visitor walks past images of North Korea's Kim Jong Il at an observation post near the border village of Panmunjom.
A visitor walks past images of North Korea's Kim Jong Il at an observation post near the border village of Panmunjom. (By Lee Jin-man -- Associated Press)
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Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, September 11, 2009

SEOUL -- The murky process of hereditary succession in North Korea appears to have been suspended, at least for now, and the rise to power of Kim Jong Il's third son may be on hold, according to South Korean analysts and three organizations with informants inside the secretive state.

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Kim Jong Un, 26, is the likely heir to the dynasty that rules North Korea, South Korean intelligence officials told lawmakers here in June. His nomination was apparently triggered by the ill health of his 67-year-old father, who suffered a stroke 13 months ago and looked sickly in television footage in the spring.

But Kim Jong Il has since shown signs of improved health. He has appeared relatively robust on state-controlled TV this summer and reportedly acted spry in his meeting last month with former president Bill Clinton, who flew to Pyongyang to secure the release of two jailed U.S. journalists.

"When Kim Jong Il's health was deteriorating and the outside world was speculating on a power struggle, there was a need to launch a visible succession campaign to quell rumors," said Koh Yu-hwan, a North Korea specialist at Dongguk University in Seoul. "Now that he appears to be back in the saddle," Koh said, there is a need to suspend the succession process to prevent elites in Pyongyang from dividing into camps for or against Jong Un.

In an interview Thursday with a Japanese news agency, North Korea's No. 2 leader, Kim Yong Nam, denied foreign media reports that Kim Jong Il has selected his third son to be his successor.

"We haven't even had discussion on such an issue in our country," he told Kyodo News. He added that Kim Jong Il is now running the party, the government and the military "with an abundance of energy."

There is little certainty about internal political developments in Pyongyang, where the government has denied that Kim Jong Il suffered a stroke and has made no official public announcements about succession. No recent photographs of Jong Un have been released, and his name has not been published in official documents.

But three organizations that closely monitor North Korea, two from Seoul and one from Japan, report that the succession process for Jong Un went oddly silent in mid-summer.

The North Korean government issued an order in July that the succession issue was not to be discussed, said Lee Seung-yong, director of Good Friends, a Buddhist charity that says it has informants in North Korea.

The Daily NK, a Seoul-based Web newspaper that often quotes unnamed midlevel officials in the North, reported that "authorities have commanded the people to stop all propaganda" about Jong Un.

The Web site quotes what it said was a July 28 decree from the Workers' Party central committee: "Stop sending out propaganda regarding Captain Kim [Jong Un] in lecture meetings or on Channel 3 [a television station in Pyongyang], and refrain from using the expression, 'Young General of Mt. Paektu.' "

Mount Paektu is the highest peak on the Korean Peninsula and a revered place. North Korea says that the country's founder, Kim Il Sung, organized guerrillas to fight Japanese occupation from bases on the mountain and that his son, Kim Jong Il, was born there.


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